Student Success

Novel approach wins Kaden Fujita an undergraduate thesis award

Kaden Fujita’s (BSc ’20) curiosity, creativity and perseverance has led to an award-winning thesis, a couple of papers submitted for publication and the spawning of a new collaboration between two University of Lethbridge scientists.

Fujita, now a master’s student in biology, recently received the Dr. Richard C. Playle Award for Outstanding Theses in Ecotoxicology by the Canadian Ecotoxicity Workshop, a first for a U of L student. The award is given to only one undergraduate student each year in Canada.

“I’m extremely honoured to receive this award,” says Fujita. “I’m very grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Steve Wiseman, for all his assistance and to Tony Montina for taking me on as an independent studies student in metabolomics.”

“Kaden is extremely hardworking,” says Wiseman, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. “Intelligence is one thing and you can be as smart as you want in science, but it doesn’t really guarantee success. Kaden puts in the hours to be successful.”

“He’s a good scientist, too,” adds Montina (BSc ’08, MSc ’10), an instructor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry and director of the Magnetic Resonance Facility. “He doesn’t accept anything we tell him without questioning it first.”

Fujita began his studies at the U of L in the Research Internship Concentration offered in the Department of Biological Sciences. A Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Undergraduate Student Research Award allowed him to spend a summer working with a graduate student to examine the toxicity of diluted bitumen exposed to environmental weathering on zebrafish embryos.

“That, to our knowledge, was the first time anyone had studied the toxicity of weathered sediment-bound diluted bitumen,” says Wiseman. “We saw a variety of effects on developing embryos. What we didn’t know after that study was how those effects manifested — what’s happening at the cellular level that leads to these effects on the embryo, like changes in heart rate and lack of a swim bladder and other malformations. Kaden then used a metabolomics approach in his undergraduate honours thesis to try and figure out why these effects manifest.”

Fujita approached Montina with the idea of doing an independent study in metabolomics. Metabolomics, the study of the chemical composition of fluids that result from cellular processes, gives researchers a picture of how an organism is functioning and helps pinpoint why changes are occurring.

After completing a project in metabolomics in Montina’s lab, Fujita began his thesis work studying the effects of diluted bitumen on the early life stages of zebrafish. He tested several concentrations of diluted bitumen on zebrafish larvae and observed effects on various metabolites.

“Many studies have been done on early life stages of fish, but the molecular mechanisms of toxicity aren’t very well understood,” says Fujita. “I wanted to take a metabolomic approach to get a broader picture of what might be happening under the surface. We found there were various metabolites that were increased or decreased in concentration after exposure to diluted bitumen.”

Largely, amino acids were affected and various deformities, such as yolk sac edema, pericardial edema and uninflated swim bladder, were observed. His work formed the basis for his award-winning thesis and points to areas for further studies.

“There are a lot of questions yet to be asked but I think it gives us a very nice starting point,” says Wiseman. “We know what to look for now, so if we were to follow up with more environmentally relevant studies, we have a really nice platform to jump from.”

An NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship in hand, Fujita is focusing his master’s thesis on UV stabilizers, which are chemicals put into plastics to maintain their stability, with Wiseman and Montina as his supervisors.